HARTFORD, Conn. -- Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has made it a priority in his first months in office to reach out to top executives across Connecticut, embarking on a charm offensive in a state that has seen some of its best-known employers, including General Electric, move away.
Lamont, a former businessman, has called or met privately with at least four dozen executives from large and small companies since taking office in January, according to a review of his daily schedules obtained by The Associated Press through public records requests.
In an interview, the Democrat said he hopes the personal connections might make companies more inclined to reach out to him if there's a problem, rather than broadsiding the administration with a move to another state. Lamont often references the "gut-punch" Connecticut suffered when General Electric announced in 2016 it was moving its longtime headquarters to Boston. The following year, before he was governor, he helped to organize an event with business leaders and policymakers to discuss why GE left and what Connecticut should do to encourage companies to stay and grow here.
"I just told myself, I would never let that happen again," he said.
Despite his focus, companies have left the state on his watch for various reasons. Critics argue the state is still pursuing anti-business policies and higher taxes, especially on smaller businesses.
Lamont's calendar is a Who's Who of Connecticut business leaders, including Vivek Sankaran, who was CEO of PepsiCo Foods North America, which includes Frito-Lay, at the time; Chris Swift, CEO of The Hartford; Dave O'Neill, COO of Indeed.com; and Wolfgang Baiker, president and CEO of pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim.
In some cases, Lamont was seeking feedback on specific state legislation, such as a proposed minimum wage increase or a public health insurance option. He also invited CEOs to the governor's residence to give input on the next president of the University of Connecticut, part of an effort to meet the educational needs of employers. But most of the contacts from the one-time cable TV entrepreneur have been get-to-know-you conversations or congratulatory calls to a new CEO or to a company that just increased its hiring — milestones a Lamont aide uncovered by regularly scouring local newspapers.
"These are introductory meetings. These are what can I do to help? What are your needs in terms of workforce? How can we help you recruit," Lamont said. He said he's "always surprised when they say, 'It's the first time I've ever met a governor.'"
Joe Carbone, president and CEO of The Workplace in Bridgeport, which coordinates regional workforce development policy and programs, thought he was getting pranked when Lamont's aide called to say the governor wanted to visit. Carbone hung up on him — twice — and didn't think Lamont was actually coming until the governor appeared at his office and then stayed for an hour.
"He fired one question after another, after another," Carbone said. "It was a big surprise, but when he left here, I just felt so comforted. I heard it. This guy gets it."
Still, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano remains concerned that companies like United Technologies Corporation, which announced plans in June to move its headquarters from Farmington to the Boston area, as part of a merger with Raytheon Co., still aren't choosing to invest in Connecticut. UTC recently announced a $45 million investment in Florida.
"Companies large and small are telling us our state is not the top choice for growth," said Fasano, of North Haven, in a recent statement.
In a state that lags behind the rest of New England in job recovery from the 2008 recession, Fasano blames Lamont and his fellow Democrats for passing policies that he says have made the state less competitive.
But Lamont notes that UTC Chairman and CEO Greg Hayes, whose name appears on the daily schedules, called to him to say the company was still committed to its presence in Connecticut.
Bigelow Tea President Cindi Bigelow said her family's Fairfield-based company, which currently employs 200 people in Connecticut, needs to expand. Like many larger Connecticut companies, Bigelow Tea has a footprint in multiple states.
"The regulations are so much more challenging here," she said. "(Lamont) is allowing me to rethink that position over the next six months and the year."
Bigelow said she's been impressed so far by the outreach from Lamont and his administration and their willingness to hear from CEOs. She recently spoke with the governor about proposed family medical leave legislation.
"I am cautiously, extremely optimistic that this governor is really trying to listen to people that have the interest of the state at heart," said Bigelow.
Not all of Lamont's outreach has focused on major employers. And some of Lamont's interactions haven't appeared on his public schedule. He often decides on the spur of the moment to visit a business, like the Little House Brewing Co. in Chester.
Co-owners Carlisle Schaeffer and Sam Wagner were busy working on a brew when Lamont came by last week. The brewery was closed for production and the two were covered in grain, yeast and hops.
Embarrassed, Schaeffer said they cleared a spot at the bar for Lamont, gave him a light lager, and began chatting about new legislation that allows local craft breweries to sell more product off-premises.
"He wanted to know our story, where we came up with the ideas for the brewery, how we started it,'" Schaeffer said. "It was just a nice, quick little surprise."
This story has been updated to correct that Vivek Sankaran is the former CEO of PepsiCo Foods North America, not the current CEO of Pepsi North America.